Category Archives: Sermons

What a Minister Does: Worship

I’ve been hearing a lot lately that my congregants don’t know what a minister does.  In one way, it makes sense because so much of what we do is invisible.  In another way, it’s frustrating because I love this congregation and I work hard to help it succeed.

The truth is that my personal life has been in a period of intense change and re-vision.  I know that it’s natural for a congregation to worry when their minister is going through crisis.  If a minister’s personal life is messy, it makes it hard to be sure that they will still be able to minister effectively.

All sorts of things naturally come up in a situation like this.  Part of the worry is grounded in real changes in me. I don’t have as much enthusiasm and joy right now.  People can tell I’ve been struggling for a while.   They can see that I am carrying stress and worries of my own.  I’m slower with responses, with answers to questions, with new ideas and solutions. My energy is limited. So they worry. And when they worry, they wonder: Is he still an effective minister?  What does he do anyway?

As soon as I knew that my personal life was going to need my attention, I made a decision.  I thought about what I do and decided that the most important thing I contribute to the congregation is the Sunday morning worship–not just the sermon, but the whole worship experience.  We’ve been seeing a lot a visitors lately and they, as well as my “regular congregants” need Sunday mornings to be meaningful and to feed their souls.  I decided that I would make quality worship my first priority.

If feedback from the congregation can be trusted (and i think it can), I’ve succeeded in keeping the quality of worship high.  People have had lots of good things to say about the sermons, the music, the quality of lay leadership, and especially our 25th anniversary service.

So, what does it take to create that hour on Sunday morning?  I think most people have no idea. (And that’s probably a good thing.)  Oh, they know I prepare a sermon–but how long can that take?  It takes about fifteen hours a week, actually.  That includes planning the title and topic well in advance, doing research, coming up with a meaningful “angle” to share, and writing the thing.  I don’t do a lot of rewrites, so actually, I’m a pretty quick sermon writer.  In seminary they encouraged us to plan 1 hour of preparation time for each minute of speaking.  (My average sermon is 15 to 20 minutes long.)

What else do I do to get that hour of worship to happen? I meet monthly with the worship committee to attend to the details of the planning, and lead an annual retreat to train them in the “arts of worship.”  I meet with the music director for 60 – 90 minutes each week to select music for the choir, hymns and songs that work with the upcoming services.  I also communicate with any special musicians and the accompanist.  If I have a good idea well in advance, I may try to inspire the musicians to learn a new song for a service.  And whenever I hear a good local musician, I make a point to offer them an invitation to play in church.  You’d be surprised how often this pays off and how much depth and diversity it’s added to our musical offerings.

I write up the order of service, working with a lay leader to find readers, storytellers, chalice lighters, and anyone else who might participate. I pay special attention to balancing words, silence and music, trying to create a rhythm that leads people toward meaning and then releases them to act in the world.  I also think a lot about balancing innovation and tradition:  I want people to feel comfortable because they know what to expect, but not get bored.

I choose readings, write the opening and closing words, and create or choose a meditation or prayer for the service–another couple of hours of writing.  I’ve tried using more “prefab” readings for these, but most often, I end up adapting them or writing something new.  It’s important to me that each word matters in the service–they set the mood, express additional thoughts about the theme of the sermon, or create space for whatever the congregant has brought with them to the service that needs their attention.  There is a lot that needs to be “done” in that hour–the creation of a space/time where something potentially meaningful, reverent, and even life-changing can happen.

That amazing task takes around 25 hours of preparation.  I spend about 5 hours at the church on Sunday–getting in about 9 a.m. and leaving about 2:00 p.m. (A short day compared to some, since we have only a single service.)  So, for about 30 hours a week, I am planning, thinking, searching, scheming, creating, writing, and trying to make that hour on Sunday morning something that really matters.

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SERMON: "The Integrity of Pride"

utah pride logo

Opening Words
Rev. Walter Royal Jones Jr.

Mindful of truth every exceeding our knowledge
And community ever exceeding our practice,
Reverently we covenant together,
Beginning with ourselves as we are,
To share the strength of integrity
And the heritage of the spirit
In the unending quest for wisdom and love.

Meditation
Spirit of Life, Source of Beauty, Great Mystery,
On this beautiful morning we give thanks.

We give thanks for this precious day. We know each day is important.  Help us meet this day with reverence, with joy, with intention.  Help us use it to its fullest, to meet whatever life has brought our way.

If life has brought grief, help us grieve well. Help us acknowledge the depth of our sorrow and not hide from its tenderness.  For we know that we grieve when we have loved.  We grieve when we have allowed ourselves to hope.  We grieve when something precious has been lost to us. Help us grieve honestly, moving through our sorrow to healing.

If life has brought us joy, help us celebrate well.  Help us stop and notice the blessings we have been given and acknowledge all those who have helped make them possible.  Help gratitude grow our spirits and teach us to be generous in return.  Help us celebrate honestly and graciously, knowing that joy is a gift.

If life has brought us confusion, help us learn well.  Help us sort through the tangled threads that seem an unfathomable knot.  Help us make peace with mystery, while seeking wisdom.  Help us let go of fear, nurturing the seeds of faith that lie in every confusing time.  Help us remember that seeking can, in itself, be an answer.

If life has brought us boredom, help us break out of the illusion of smallness.  Expand our minds and spirits until we can imagine a thousand ways to be kind, a thousand things we can do to make life better, for ourselves or someone else.  Help us be daring as we decide what to do with this day.

If life has brought us too much to do, too much to hold, too much to manage, help us find a spirit of calm amidst it all.  Help us remember to nurture peace of mind as well as peace in our homes and in the world.  Remind us to slow down, center ourselves, and be present to what really matters.

On this beautiful morning, we take time to give thanks.  We know that today is important. Help us meet it with reverence, with joy, with intention.  Help us use today to its fullest.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

Reading
from “Gaiety of Soul” an interview with James Broughton

Wherever I hurt, wherever I tingle, whenever I weep, whenever I guffaw, my soul is humming.  It flexes with my desires and responses, my longing and my ailing.  It operates in my heart, my deep guts, and my genitals.  My soul entangles me in fantasies and surprising emotions.  It is the playground of my instincts.  Denials cripple it, denunciations squinch it… It does not want to play safe, to be insured, or think twice. It wants to plunge, to risk all, and live it out…Don’t make Adam’s mistake.  Choose joy, not reason.

“Those who see any difference between the soul and the body have neither,” said Oscar Wilde.  The soul expresses itself throughout the body, in its members, organs, nerves, and cells, in all actions of desire and daring… whenever you ache and wherever you soar. Every nook and cranny of yourself can flutter and stretch, exude and hum, in experiencing the pleasures and pains of being alive. The body is a holy place of romp and renewal.  It is not the shameful sewer that orthodox religions insist upon.  Novalis said, “There is only one temple in the world, and that is the human body.” From your tiptoe to your topknot , you are throbblingly alive in the dance of the diving mystery…We are each of us a whole universe right here and now; we are each a Godbody.

Gaiety has no gender barriers.  Isn’t joyfulness available to all?  I do not condone heterophobia any more than I do other prejudices. I am uncomfortable with the dichotomy of Them against Us.  I believe in the potential redemption of all…souls.  Look for all that is beautiful in [people,] despite appearances to the contrary.  Look for the radiance behind the mask of every face.  Though you may not want to believe it, every other human being is as divine as you are.

Sermon

As is often true on Gay Pride Sunday, we are small in numbers here at the church today. Many of our members, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight are downtown marching in the gay pride parade.  Every other year, I march too.  But this is my year to be here and to preach about the topic of Pride and specifically, to preach about why we, as Unitarian Universalists, have supported Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender rights and Pride for so long.

This year we’ve borrowed the concept of Pride as the focus for our entire month.  Last week I talked a little bit about pride and about how it can be a positive thing in anyone’s life.  Today, I want to talk more specifically about Pride as a powerful political and personal tool.  I want to explore with you what we have to learn from Gay pride.

Most of us have felt the power of shame in our lives.  Shame and violence are the two most powerful tools of social control that exist in human communities.  They are used to keep us all in line, to keep us quiet, to batter our self-esteem and defeat our sense of strength.  Usually, shame comes first and usually it is enough to keep us in line.  Little boys who are sensitive, tender-hearted, and creative are usually the first to feel the powerful effects of shaming.  It may begin subtly, but very quickly boys—all boys—learn that if they cry or laugh too much, or if they prefer nurturing play to competition, or if they are more compassionate than tough—they will feel the power and pain of shame.

Girls, of course, feel it too—though there is a bit more room in our society for the tomboy.  Still, if a girl doesn’t care about how she looks, or if she wants to rebuild an engine instead of becoming a cheerleader, or if she prefers robots or fishing to Disney princesses—she too will quickly learn the power and pain of shame.

And let’s not forget the kids who don’t fit the gender dichotomy at all.  They ones who can’t jam themselves neatly into a gender box—they feel the power and pain of shame every day, and sadly, most often their parents are counseled, even urged, to be the first to shame their kids into gender conformity.

Shame is everywhere if you are gay.  Walking down the street every day, I hear kids say to one another, “That is so gay.”  They don’t mean happy.  They mean “stupid” or “unattractive” or “embarrassing” or “unacceptable.” In popular culture, “That’s so gay” is the ultimate insult.  But shame is not always that blatant.  As we get older, we tend to be a little more subtle.  So my adult friends don’t say, “That’s so gay.”

Instead, they wonder why gay people have to so obvious—so “in your face”—about being gay.  They wonder why we can’t just be quiet about it. I mean, why do we need a parade and t-shirts and to talk about our lives and experience all the time?

Rev. Mark Belletini was one of the first openly gay UU ministers. When he graduated from seminary, he had a very hard time finding a congregation that could see him for the amazing minister he was and is instead of just seeing—and fearing—him as a gay man.  Later, when he had found a place where he could minister, he wrote this:

Gay and Lesbian Studies 101

And so one of the members
of the search committee asks me
“But why do you people?”
he really said that, “you people”
“have to talk about it?”
Right.
Well, because:
Because if I feel in love,
You know, with sonnets and everything,
and wanted to name all the stars of heaven
one at a time with a goofy smile on my face
I’d love to be able to.
Because, if I didn’t fall in love,
I’d like to grouse a bit,
or work up a bitter Theory
to explain it.
Because, if my lover got run over
by a drunk driver
(it happens, you know,
remember blue-eyed Stewart?)
I’d like to be able to take a few days off work
to cry and stuff, OK?
Because, if my partner-in-life
whom I can’t really legally marry because
it upsets someone’s stomach or something
suddenly developed an infection
and got Job’s sores all over this body
And had to go to the hospital
(you know, just like my friend Stephen)
I’d like to take him there
and hold his hand for a few days
and still get paid on family emergency leave
so I could eat food and pay rent and all….
Because lying all the time is still wrong, isn’t it?
Oh, and because,
whether you believe it or not,
my life is just as important to me
as yours is to you.

Shame is a powerful way to keep people silent and isolated.  When someone like Mark speaks, it interrupts that.  When thousands of someones march under rainbow colored balloons right down the main streets of Salt Lake City, it helps break through the layers of shame that try so hard to suffocate the spirit.

That is why I know we can all learn something important from Gay Pride: because shame is not reserved in our culture for people who are gay.  Shame is let loose on every one of us any time we are a little bit “queer”—any time we stop hiding the fact that we’re different in some way from the norms that surround us.  The message of shame is always “you’d better not let anyone know.”  Shame cuts a person off from some part of themselves. Shame convinces us that we have to hide and hold back and never let anyone know that we aren’t just like the Joneses and everyone else.  And that hiding and holding back—and especially the deep sense of inadequacy that grows from them—damages the human spirit.

I’m going to say that again, because I think it is vitally important.  Shame damages the human spirit.  It attacks people at the deepest part of their being and convinces them that they are not worthy, not important, not good enough, not acceptable as they are.  And that is in direct contradiction to what we, as Unitarian Universalists, hold to be true.  Shame does not believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  In fact, shame destroys that dignity.

That is why we all have something to learn from gay pride.  That’s why we should listen closely to anyone who has found the strength to stand up and claim their dignity in the face of shame.
Because what pride is about—Gay pride or any kind of healthy pride—is integrity.  Integrity that puts all the pieces of a life back together again and says, “All that I am is okay.”  One of my colleagues, Rev. Keith Kron, preaches a sermon that begins by describing the double life he had to lead as a gay public school teacher.  Then, toward the end of the sermon, he blesses the listeners by wishing them one life—a single, integrated life of integrity.

When someone like James Broughton breaks through shame to write the words we heard in our reading, we should listen.  Because when he moved from shame to pride, he didn’t stop there. He didn’t just say, “I’m proud, now get out of my way.”  He came to understand one of the great spiritual lessons.  He realized that every person is divine, every person is a whole universe right here and now, every person matters and is holy.  He learned the lesson of integrity and compassion—lessons interwoven and revealed in the journey from shame to pride.

Rev. William Sinkford, president of our Association, who was here with us just a few weeks ago to celebrate, says this:

We know from our own experience the many blessings that gay and lesbian people bring to our communities and congregations. We know from our lived experience in religious community that differences of faith, of race and of sexual orientation need not divide us, that diversity within the human family can be a blessing and not a curse. Unitarian Universalists affirm that it is the presence of love and commitment that we value. For Unitarian Universalists, it is homophobia that is the sin, not homosexuality.

It is the presence of love that we value—and the presence of pride that allows people to love themselves and love others with integrity and honesty. This is what we have in common with every single person who is marching downtown this morning, marching for integrity, for love, and for pride.  May we join them in spirit and in the struggle to make a place for more love in our communities.

In the words of Rev. Kendyll Gibbons:

There comes a time—to break the silence.
There comes a time—to move beyond the fear.
There comes a time—to speak one’s truth, even if it will not be welcome.
There comes a time—to call into question what has gone before;
To resist the weight of the past.
There comes a time—for the singing of a new song,
For a different way of being,
For the claiming of power.
There comes a time—when the truth shall at last make us free.
One day, blessedly, the practiced lie dies on our lips,
And the truth becomes more precious than the same, and the pretending ends.
There comes a time—when somehow courage finds us, or we find courage,
And we dare to know who we are, and what we love.
There comes a time—when friends are there,
Holding us so gently in their love
That all at once the impossible is possible,
And we cross over to the other side of whatever bondage held us.
There comes a time—when the truth at last makes us free,
And in that moment is the salvation of the world.

May it be so. May we be the ones who make it so.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

Closing Words
By Rev. Frederick E. Gillis

May the love that overcomes all differences,
that heals all wounds,
that puts to flight all fears,
that reconciles all who are separated,
Be in us and among us
now and always. Amen.

SERMON: Who is My Neighbor?

Opening Words
We are here together to learn:
to learn to live according to our ideals,
not our fears.
to learn to live according to our faith,
not cynicism.
We are here to be reminded that this faith
teaches us that love and compassion
are more that words—
that love and compassion demand action.

We are here to begin to live our faith,
This faith that teaches us that we can make a difference,
because we must make a difference.
We are here because together
we can learn to live our love into the world
making ourselves and the world
more just, more compassionate,
and a better place for all.
We gather to learn to love.

Meditation
adapted from Rev. Mark Belletini

Spirit of Life, of Love, of Fire and Water,
May our hearts be kindled anew
in this moment of profound attention.
May we find again in ourselves
the passion that burns away apathy;
the love that burns away indifference.
Where there is fear, may we [find hope].
Where we see eyes filled with suffering,
may we reach out to embrace and welcome.

Spirit-fire of our deepest longing,
keep us from arrogance, and superior attitudes…
May we never think ourselves giddy
with the flash of fire,
but may we love only
its steady heat and constancy.

Spirit of Water, wash us from the tangles
of our daily obsessions and habits,
lift us to loftier thoughts of peace and … justice…
commitment and courage.

Spirit of Fire and Water,
eternal kinship binding us deeper than blood,
or politics or religion,
kindle us to thy unswerving love.
May we have the wisdom a
nd the courage we need,
to do the Great Work before us.

May we have the strength
and the weakness we need,
to yield to our deepest calling,
That our every action may be guided by love,
and every moment of our lives
may be made sacred.
May we live Love in this world.
Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

Reading
The Good Samaritan Story as Told from a Wisconsin Cornfield
by Russell King

The parable of the “Good Samaritan”… One of the most well known of the parables of Jesus because it captures so well the theology of Jesus. Here is the whole of Jesus’ teachings wrapped up in a small, understandable package. A stranger, a person of a different creed, one who would normally be “at odds” with the man beaten on the side of the road, is the one who stops and sacrifices time, money, and personal pride to help another who is in desperate need. It is something of a sacrifice for the Samaritan, but yet at the same time it isn’t much that he offers. It is more that he takes the time to stop and be kind than anything else.

Of course, the question that arises from the lawyer is, “Who is my neighbor?” Like someone worrying about legalities and liabilities, he is concerned with specifics. He is concerned with Jewish law and when it is right to help someone when it may cause himself to become unclean. The problem with the lawyer is that he asks for what is right and what is wrong as if these were easily distinguishable – that “right” things would obviously be right, and what was “wrong” would obviously be wrong.

…If the Samaritan would have stopped to ask himself if it would be a good idea to stop and help the Jew alongside the road, by the time he got to helping him it may have been too late. Instead, the Samaritan didn’t bother with thinking about all the specifics that might get him into trouble, but rather thought of how he could help a fellow human being.

There have been, through time, all sorts of explanations about why the priest and the Levite might have passed the man by. It may have been that they were on the way to the Temple and did not want to risk making themselves unclean and therefore unable to lead others in worship, or even enter the temple area itself.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to make these distinctions. Instead, he leaves us only with the understanding that the priest and Levite could have helped the man but did not.

There seem to be no distinctions for Jesus – no right or wrong reasons for leaving the man to suffer or die. And though Jesus does not condemn these first men, neither does he excuse them.

Sermon
The story of the Good Samaritan is one of those stories that endures. It endures in individual memory and in our cultural mythos. But why such staying power? What is it about such a simple tale that sticks with us so memorably?

My first memory of the story is from Sunday School in my childhood Methodist church. I was pretty young, maybe second grade. After reading us the story from the big black leather Bible in the room, our teacher—a retiree who smelled like lilacs—asked us, “Well, children, what did you learn?” At first not a single hand went up. Then, oddly, Ray Hampton, who never answered questions—raised his hand. “Raymond?”

“I learned that if I am beaten up and hurt, someone should stop and help me.” I remember we all laughed because even at that young age, we knew that we were supposed to be thinking of ourselves as the Good Samaritan, not the poor, nameless, beaten man. And then my laughter subsided when I remembered that Ray and his twin brother Rodney were adopted and everybody whispered around our school that they had been abused and beaten by their birth mother.

“I learned if I am beaten up and hurt, someone should stop and help me.” I suddenly had a glimpse into Ray’s life and it was very different from mine. I remember the room (or maybe it was just my own head) got very quiet. And in that silence, a tiny, awkward compassion tried to grow in me.

It was uncomfortable. I didn’t like Ray. He was prone to outbursts and even violence at school. He never looked anyone in the eye. We’d heard that he and Rodney had “emotional problems” and for the most part, we stayed clear of them. But in that moment, when the things I knew about Ray fell into place, his answer no longer seemed dumb or selfish. It seemed instead to reveal a terrible truth. A truth I didn’t want to see.

I wonder If that’s how the priest and the Levite felt when they walked by the beaten man on the side of that road. Maybe they thought to themselves, “This is too much for me. I’m not up to it. I don’t want to be reminded of how ugly the world can be or how vulnerable we are on this road. I don’t want to see the blood and bruises on this man’s face. It will be too hard.”

Or maybe they noticed the man, but thought, “I can do more good if I stay the course and get to this meeting I am going to. I will be sure to bring up how dangerous Jericho Road has become and perhaps I can get the community to do a better job keeping dangerous people off this road.” Or maybe they were just so preoccupied with whatever they were thinking that they simply never noticed the man lying there alone.

In his reflection on the story of the Good Samaritan, Guy C. Quinlan wrote:

Injustice results less often from malice than from willed inattention. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite did no active harm to the wounded man on the highway. They just passed by on the opposite side of the road, distancing themselves from the uncomfortable sight. Relentlessly, Jesus keeps bringing the oppressed back into our field of vision.

This is one of the things Jesus—and every other prophet and religious leader I can think of—insisted upon. He made people look at and think about things that were otherwise easy to ignore. In this case, Jesus not only points out the uncomfortable fact that people get beaten and robbed and left for dead, but that others refuse to see. They pass over to the other side of the road, intent on not letting their piety or hurry or optimism or duty be interrupted by life…or death.

When the lawyer asked Jesus, “Well, who is my neighbor?” Jesus was smart enough not to fall into the trap that was laid for him. Had he simply begun to list, “Well, the people who live near you and the people in your city, and of course, all Jews…” He would have done just what the lawyer wanted. He would have, inevitably, created a loophole in the law. “Ah, I see teacher, so I must help those nearby, whose culture and ways I understand, and those who are like me…” No matter how extensive Jesus’ answer would have been, any decent lawyer could have found a way out.

But Jesus, by telling a story of a beating, the religious leaders who walked right past, and the Samaritan—sworn enemy of the Jews—who stopped to help, changed the question. The lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus replied with a different question, “Which one of these was a neighbor to the beaten man?”

Suddenly “neighbor” has nothing to do with proximity or social role or even the law. “Who was a neighbor to this man?” is a question that reveals that being a neighbor is something one can always choose to do. Being a neighbor is an act, not a status. “Which one of these was a neighbor to the beaten man?”

When I caught a glimpse of Ray’s story in his words, I began a journey that continues to this day. It is a journey of learning to live love in the world; a journey of love-as-action and a choice to look for ways to be a neighbor. It’s not easy, and I’m quite sure I fail more often than I succeed. In my busyness and worry about my own life, I’m sure I have “passed by” far too many times. Love-as-action is not something that comes naturally. It’s something we have to learn, to practice. Again and again we will be challenged to lay distraction and self-interest aside and be the hand of love at work in this world. Again and again, we will have to remind ourselves and each other that this is what we are called to do.

Rev. Rob Hardies, in his sermon “Love and Its Limits” writes:

I think that if we are to go the route of the Good Samaritan…this story then gives us fair warning. Its warning is that love will take us to a place beyond where it feels good to love. It will take us to a place where we can’t rely anymore on an outburst of compassion or a good, sweet feeling, or the kind of falling in love that we feel when we first meet our loved one. We can’t rely on this kind of love over the long haul. If steadfast love endureth forever, steadfast love has to be more than just a feeling… [It’s]the kind of love that takes discipline, that takes cultivation, that takes practice, really.

That’s the kind of love that religion calls us to, that faith calls us to. We need to get it out of our heads that love-as-a-good-feeling is strong enough to respond to the hurt and the need of this world. Love-as-a-good-feeling can be the initial start of our love and care for the world, and certainly it will come and it will refresh us, over and over again, as that feeling, once again, returns to us and renews us. But we all know from our experience that we are called to love when it doesn’t feel good, that we are called to love when it feels lousy, that we are called to love when it feels like a duty, not a joy, when it feels painful even. And that love is sustained only when we as a community together learn how to love better.

This month at South Valley, we are intentionally asking ourselves a tough question, “ Who is our neighbor?” We are challenging ourselves to lay aside our focus on the day-to-day work of this congregation and spend some time paying attention to the ways we can be love-in-action in our world. How can we be a neighbor? Who needs our time, our attention, our help? What resources can we offer? What wounds might we begin to bind?
Alice Walker writes in her book Anything We Love Can Be Saved, writes:

Love and justice and truth are the only monuments that generate ever-widening circles of energy and life; love and justice and truth the only monuments that endure, though trashed and trampled, generation after generation. We can say with conviction to our children that anything they love can be sheltered by…love; anything they truly love can be saved. First, in their own hearts, and then in the hearts of others. They have only to make their love inseparable from their belief. And both inseparable from hard work.

Anything we love can be saved. Learning to love—not the easy way, but love-in-action everyone that we encounter, every part of this planet, every possibility for justice and fairness, every single soul—including our own—that reaches out to help and hope for a better world: this can save us.

As we spend the next four weeks thinking together about our neighbors and our responsibilities to them—let us do so in the spirit of love. Love that calls us to act, to give of ourselves, to harbor hope for this world, and to refuse to pass by the ones that need us.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

Closing Words
by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Another thing about this philosophy which is often misunderstood [is…] that at its best the love ethic can be a reality in a social revolution. Most revolutions in the past have been based on hope and hate, with the rising expectations of the revolutionaries implemented by hate for the perpetrators of the unjust system in the old order. I think the different thing about the revolution that has taken place in our country is that it has maintained the hope element and at the same time it has added the dimension of love.

Many people would disagree with me and say that love hasn’t been there. I think we have to stop and talk about what we mean in this context because I would be the first to say that it is nonsense to urge oppressed people to love their violent oppressors in an affectionate sense. And I’m certainly not talking about that when I talk above love standing at the center of our struggle. I think it is necessary to see the meaning of love in higher terms. The Greek language has three words for love – one is the eros, another is the word filio, and another is the word agape. I’m thinking… of agape, which is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all.. an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…I believe that in our best moments in this struggle we have tried to adhere to this.

SERMON: Being Together

Merry Christmas, dear ones! Here is my homily from Sunday. It doesn’t say much that people don’t already know, but I still think it was important to preach.  The magical moment came when the musicians singing after the sermon got up and told their personal story of being together.  We all cried and the sermon suddenly had deep, deep meaning. I hope a little of that dear gift can make its way to each of your.

Opening Words
It is good.
It is good to be.
It is good to be here.
It is good to be here together.

Meditation
We are here together, caught up in a tangle of holy days, trying to balance our everyday, ordinary responsibilities even while we open our hearts to a larger story. We have found a way through the darkest night and yet, the days are still short and there is so much to do, so much to balance, so many demands on our time and so much to attend to.

We know that in any human community—including this one we hold dear—these holy days bring a mix of feelings and memories, of hopes and worries, of celebration and mourning. We stop for a moment in the midst of it all to bring our attention to each other.

Whenever we come together, we are reminded we are not alone. We are held by a community that sustains us and which we too sustain. Whenever we come together we are reminded that while each of us is important, none of us is more or less important than the others.

We take this moment to remind ourselves that we are not alone and to send out hopes, prayers, and wishes to each other, in the spirit of beloved community:

Prayers of gratitude and joy for those among us who look forward to these holy days with excitement and who have hearts full of enthusiasm and lives full of gifts they are eager to give. May we be ready to receive and share their joy.

Prayers for clarity and comfort for those among us who meet these days with a confusion of mixed feelings, who feel the weight of expectations on their shoulders, who struggle to face the stresses of the season. May we be ready to listen and pitch in where we can, helping shoulder these burdens with a generous heart

Prayers of compassion and peace for those among us who find themselves in the middle of the holidays facing the realities of grief or loss, illness or poverty, injury or separation, pain or despair. May we be ready to listen, to hold a hand, to share what we have, to remember that the dream of peace on earth and goodwill to all is only possible in a world where we work for justice.

And lastly, prayers of safety for all who travel and for those who are in harm’s way this season. For the soldiers, doctors, nurses, firefighters, and other public servants who cannot be home because they are serving the common good, may we be aware of all the invisible hands that help make it possible for us to celebrate, and may we be gracious and grateful.

In the spirit of community we attend to these things. Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

Reading

“Turning to One Another” (excerpt)
by Margaret J. WheatleyFor as long as we’ve been around as humans, as wandering bands of nomads or cave dwellers, we have sat together and shared experiences. We’ve painted images on rock walls, recounted dreams and visions, told stories of the day, and generally felt comforted to be in the world together. When the world became fearsome, we came together. When the world called us to explore its edges, we journeyed together. Whatever we did, we did it together.

We have never wanted to be alone. But today, we are alone. We are more fragmented and isolated from one another than ever before. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it as “a radical brokenness in all of existence.” We move at frantic speed, spinning out into greater isolation. We seek consolation in everything except each other. The entire world seems hypnotized in the wrong direction—encouraging us to love things rather than people, to embrace everything new without noticing what’s lost or wrong, to choose fear instead of peace. We promise ourselves everything except each other. We’ve forgotten the source of true contentment and well-being.

But we haven’t really forgotten. As the world becomes more complex and fearful, we know we need each other to find our way through the darkness.

Sermon
I began today with my favorite opening words:

It is good.
It is good to be.
It is good to be here.
It is good to be here together.

I remember the first time I heard these words, in one of our congregations. I was already a minister, and the congregation I was visiting opened their service by reciting these words in unison. Even though I knew there were conflicts and disagreements in the congregation, I felt the power of the weekly ritual of these people reminding themselves that there is something more important than opinions or power struggles. It is good to be. It is good to be here. It is good to be here together.

Somehow, though I am not sure how, we have come to the edge of one of the busiest and most stressful times of the year. This is the Sunday between the winter solstice and Christmas, a week away from a New Year, and full of expectations for celebrations, parties, traditions, gift-giving, and feasting. No matter which holidays you celebrate—or whether you join in the festivities at all—the air is full of expectations and assumptions. One can try to ignore it, but the frenzy of the next few days affects us all—whether we feel caught up in the midst of it or left out completely.

Like many of the most important things in our lives, these holy days are becoming less and less our own. They seem to belong more and more to corporations and retailers who bombard us with images of diamonds and cars and electronics and glamour, putting the emphasis on acquiring (either as a giver or as a recipient) the perfect gift, the perfect décor, the perfect stuff.

It’s my job—and it’s either very easy or as hard as taking on our whole culture—that it is not about the stuff. All the winter holidays—Hanukkah, Diwali, Ramadan, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Year—are about something far more important and far more life-giving, than stuff.

When the various committees chose the themes for this year’s worship and community, we chose questions. This month’s question is “What Can We Celebrate?” and you’ve heard some of my answers: “Light in Darkness,” “The Turning of the Wheel,” and today: “Being Together.” When it comes down to it, these holy days are times for recognizing and celebrating our communities—family, friends, congregation, town, religious and ethnic communities, the larger world, and the human race. It’s not about the stuff. It’s about being together.

This may sound simple. It is simple. But like many simple truths, it is easy to forget. Look again at the winter holidays: Hanukkah, Diwali, Ramadan, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the New Year—do any of them ask you to journey off alone, to light candles alone in the darkness, to sequester one’s self in the cold night, to stay away from others? No. Not one. Each one of them asks that we gather with others and share time together.

There is a poem about Yule that reminds me of this human urge to be together:

The Shortest Day
by Susan Cooper

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
to drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us –
Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

Reading that, especially the few lines, “They carol, fest, give thanks, and dearly love their friends, and hope for peace…” I can see in my mind’s eye the crowd of revelers who have faced the longest night together and shared the joy of dawn. We too, support and accompany one another through the long night. We too join voices with those who have come before to celebrate the birth of hope, the return of light, the hope for peace, the joy of love.

One of my favorite holiday readings, and one I haven’t gotten to share with you yet, though this is the sixth year we’ve celebrated together, is called “Touch Hands” by William Henry Harrison Murray. It’s an interesting little poem written in the late 19th century, and reminds us that life is fleeting, even as we celebrate:

Ah friends, dear friends,
As years go on and heads get gray,
How fast the guests do go!
Touch hands, touch hands,
With those that stay.
Strong hands to weak,
Old hands to young, around the
Christmas board, touch hands.
The false forget, the foe forgive,
For every guest will go
And every fire burn low
And cabin empty stand.
Forget, forgive,
For who may say that Christmas day
May ever come to host or guest again.
Touch hands!

There is something powerful for me in the image of touching hands with the people with whom we gather. Touching hands is an intimate connection, unmediated by words that could be misunderstood. To extend one’s hand or to take another’s hand has long been a symbol of trust and a way to show good intent. The image of people touching hands around a table or hearth is a way of focusing on what is really important, being together.

So much can get in our way and make it hard to truly be together. We worry about being judged. We remember old wrongs. We insist we know more or better than others who believe something different than we believe. Some of us lock our hearts and hands away to just get through. Or we just misunderstand—having been misled by those who just want us to buy—and try to show our love by getting our kids or partner everything they could want. And perhaps, down deep, what we really want is to be together and to touch hands.

It is true as well that we cannot touch hands with everyone we may wish we could. Some have gone on before us. Some are far away. Some have shown us that it would not be safe to offer them our trust. We learn from this, even as we may grieve the loss. We learn to hold our loved ones close while they are with us. We learn ways to express our love when distance keeps us apart. And we learn to honor ourselves as well as others, keeping ourselves safe while remaining open to those with whom we can touch hands. We create and recreate families and communities that we can give our honest and whole selves too and with whom we can celebrate and grieve, hope and heal.

One of the gifts of the holidays is the opportunity to connect or reconnect with our communities. Whether that is family, friends, congregation, city, or world, we have a chance to be intentional and thoughtful about noticing and expressing the importance of being together.

Over the next few days and weeks, as this year’s holidays play out in familiar and unfamiliar ways, we can try to remember that we don’t face life alone. The precious gift of our presence with and for one another is far more important than any material thing we could give or receive. Our ability to touch hands and join hearts is a powerful part of being human. Let us remember and celebrate the joy of being together.

Closing Words

Will you reach out to the people nearest to you and join hands for the closing words?

We join hands as a physical reminder of a great spiritual truth: We are all connected.

As we go out into this world that is full of both shallowness and holiness, may we remember to attend to what is really important: the people we love, the connections we treasure, the dream of a human community that gives birth to peace on earth.

May it be so. Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

SERMON: It’s a Wonderful World

MEDITATION

Spirit of Life and Love,
The world is so big and we are so small. Sometimes, standing at the edge of a canyon, our breath stopped short for a moment by the grandeur and beauty all around, we are suddenly aware of how beautiful it is that we are small. We realize that all of it—our big problems, our big accomplishments, our big ideas—are tiny in comparison to the enormity of life, the generosity of beauty, the extravagance of love. We are glad to bear witness, small as we are.

Spirit of Compassion and Hope,
The world is so big and we are so small. Sometimes, lying awake at night, tiredness swept away by worry and fear, we are made aware of our vulnerability and we feel so small. We face illnesses that we cannot cure alone, losses that we cannot bear alone, broken hearts that we cannot repair alone. And we hear, if we listen closely, the tender breathing of others who are also awake and afraid. And we understand that if we let go of our stubborn separateness, our proud independence, our stoicism, the loneliness of our fear can be transformed into a vast compassion.

We are here today, gathering together the bits of love we can muster, fragments of faith, tiny tendrils of hope. We gather our strength and offer what we can to those we know are struggling: those among us like Ted; Edie; Mildred; Alice; Eleanor, Elise and Anthony; and many others. And those who we do not know, but whose suffering we can only imagine: the trapped miners, the heroic rescuers, and their families and friends; the people suffering in Peru, Iraq, Darfur and everywhere touched by war and poverty; those facing another season of hurricanes and storms of uncertainty. We send them our gathered strength, the power of our combined compassion.

The world is so big and we are so small. Still, we know that we are not alone. We have each other. We have this blessed world, with its companions of heart and mind. May we remember these connections and give what we can to make our lives and the lives of all we touch better.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

READINGS
The Open Heart by Sharon Salzburg

To understand mindfulness, imagine yourself doing something very simple, something that doesn’t arouse a compelling interest–like, say, eating an apple. You probably eat your apple not paying attention to how it smells, how it tastes, or how it feels in your hand. Because of the ways we’re conditioned, we don’t usually notice the quality of our attention. Done this way, eating the apple is not a fulfilling experience.

So you blame the apple. You might think, if only I had a banana, I’d be happy. So you get a banana, but eat it the same way, and still there’s not a lot of fulfillment. And then you think, if only I had a mango–and go to great expense and some difficulty getting a mango. But it’s the same thing all over again. We don’t pay attention to what we have or what we’re doing. As a result, we seek more and more intensity of stimulation to try to rectify what seems unfulfilling.

Robert Frost wrote that life is an interminable chain of longing. The Buddha said that those who are heedless or mindless are as if dead already. Mindfulness is the quality of fullness of attention, immediacy, non-distraction. In that sense, it is the key to life.

What a Wonderful World by Robert Thiele as performed by Louis Armstrong

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin’ hands, sayin’ “How do you do?”
They’re really saying “I love you”

I hear babies cryin’, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world

SERMON
It seems so easy. When Sharon Salzburg describes mindfully eating an apple, it seems so simple. Here, in my hand is this apple. I see it’s shiny skin. I taste it: first a bit bitter and then the sweetness underneath. I notice the way its tartness makes my jaws tingle and it’s juiciness, which quenches my thirst. I find myself aware of the magnificence of an apple and deeply grateful. I am aware, attuned to my need and its fulfillment, mindful.

It’s funny, but it’s almost easier to recall eating an apple than to really notice the apple while I’m eating it. In the “real world”—the world where I am running around, trying to balance my obligations to work, family, self, and life—I rarely really notice the apple—or whatever else I am eating. I am too often grabbing food on the run—rushing from one thing to the next—never taking time to notice either my hunger nor what does or does not satisfy it. Rather than mindful, I am mindless.

The imaginary apple that Salzburg prompted in me seems more real to me than the small red delicious fruit I actually ate yesterday. I don’t remember that particular apple—was it crisp? mealy? Juicy? sweet?—I remember instead the idea of “apple”—an abstract notion of perfect “appleness” that I expect reality to live up to. But because I am constantly distracted, it’s likely that I’ll never truly notice the real apple in my mouth and so will always long for more and better “appleness.” I may blame the apple for my dissatisfaction and eventually I may blame all apples, deciding that apples are not as good as I remember them. I may move then to bananas or mangoes or other, more exotic fruit.

The sad thing is, there may have been absolutely nothing wrong with the apple. The lack was in the absence of my attention. I could have eaten a million apples and they would not have satisfied me, because I was not really present to be satisfied. I was too busy remembering the past or worrying about the future or thinking about something else entirely. The apple did not fill my hunger or quench my thirst because I did not notice myself, my needs, or the apple at all.

Then along comes Louis Armstrong. His voice is gravelly, deep, not necessarily “beautiful” by most standards. The song itself is so simple, so short and direct that it doesn’t seem like much. When he first heard it, the president of ABC Records so disliked it that he refused to release it in the U.S. until it had become a top hit in Europe. There is just something about that song—the way it focuses on the beauty of the simplest things. “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

Recent research on the brain at Stanford University Medical School has turned up something interesting. Using magnetic resonance imaging, they’ve been studying the brains of people listening to classical, but obscure, music. The team used music as a way to study the brain’s attempt to make sense of the continual flow of information the real world generates, a process called event segmentation. What they found was that peak brain activity did not happen at the climax of the musical piece, or when a piece was particularly loud or complex. Peak brain activity occurred during the short period of silence between musical movements – when seemingly nothing was happening.

“In a concert setting, for example, different individuals listen to a piece of music with wandering attention, but at the transition point between movements, their attention is arrested,” said the paper’s senior author Vinod Menon, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of neurosciences.

It seems to me that more than explaining how the human brain processes music, this study points to the importance of stopping. In the pause, the rest, the moments of silence, our brain has time to catch up, to notice, to “think to itself…” It has a chance to pay attention to the wonder of the moment.

Our culture has become better and better at giving us information and worse and worse at giving us the time we need to attend to anything deeper. We don’t have time to notice the apple we’ve eaten, the green leaves and roses. Instead we’ve become like George Jetson from the cartoon version of the future–chasing the dog, Astro, on an never-ending treadmill that was meant to make life easier, but instead has us running faster and faster just to keep from falling down and crashing.

This is, I believe, the reason that every religion has developed some method of intentional attention and stillness. Meditation, prayer, silence, chanting…all are practices that encourage human beings to slow down, to surrender to rhythms more attuned to our bodies—our breathing, our heartbeat—than the artificial and accelerated pace of culture.

Because of my own religious journey, I’ve often been uncomfortable with prayer. But recently, prayer has been redefined for me. Instead of an emphasis on petition—on laying out my requests or demands for someone “out there” to address—I’ve been exploring prayer as a form of intentional stillness, a time set aside to listen. I find that there is a “still, small voice” deep inside me, and that it is a part of me that needs time, needs the silence between the movements…and when I give it the space and time it needs, I often “think to myself…what a wonderful world.”

I found a lot of definitions of mindfulness online, but my favorite comes from MindfulPsychology.com:(adapted)

When we live in forgetfulness, we miss everything; we never actually live, but are always preparing to live. What’s more, our lack of calmness and clarity increases our difficulties and suffering. Mindfulness is an open, accepting, non-judgmental awareness. When we live mindfully, we slow down enough to process more deeply, and can find our way through difficult life problems. When we live mindfully, we are open to life, experiencing every moment deeply, in touch with life’s many wonders. Our awareness becomes spacious, open, and relaxed.

Maybe the magic of Louis Armstrong’s song is that it just notices. It notices the green leaves, the roses, the children, and my favorite line: the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. It notices the beauty of the natural world, but also the beauty of the human, the people passing by. And by noticing, it hears a deeper message: “How do ya do?” becomes “I love you.” Just taking the time to notice seems to make the world a little more wonderful.

I’m reminded of the old Christian story of the Good Samaritan, attributed to Jesus. I’ve sometimes wondered if the priest and the Levite that passed by the man who had been beaten were not so much hard-hearted, but just full of the busy-ness of their own lives. Maybe they did not notice the man because their minds were on the meeting to which they were headed, or maybe they noticed, but felt they could not spare the time from more important matters. Or maybe their prejudice made them heartless and they passed by because they did not think of the victim as a man at all, but as something beneath them.

Ah, that leads to the last can of worms I need to open for this sermon. One can’t really preach a sermon called “It’s a Wonderful World” without addressing theodicy or the problem of evil. The world may be wonderful, but it’s also full of pain, despair, and suffering. There may be green leaves and red roses, but there are also wars and disasters, people trapped in coal mines, rescuers dying, families struggling, people in pain.

What is my answer? Yes. Yes, it’s true that the world—and life, really—can be painful, unfair, devastating. I don’t deny it. I can’t. I know there are people in this room who are using every ounce of their strength to hold on to hope in the face of enormous pain, fear, and anger. There are people in our world who can barely see life’s wonder because they have never had enough food, enough safety, enough love. I cannot deny it and I wouldn’t try.

In fact, I believe we need to be as mindful and aware of suffering as we are of wonder and joy. We need to open our hearts and minds to sorrow, our own and others, in order to develop compassion and to be moved to action. We need to notice our privilege when life is wonderful and use it to make a difference. And, when life is not wonderful, we need to really look at it, to let the voice of wisdom arise in us and help us see what we can—and cannot—do to make things better. It is not a coincidence that the practice of mindfulness is best articulated in Buddhism, the same religious tradition that tells us “all life is suffering.” Nor is it coincidence that the same tradition has as its goal the development and enlargement of compassion for all life. It is all true: the world is wonderful, we suffer, we must learn compassion.

Perhaps the greatest gift of mindfulness is to help us accept this complexity without judging ourselves so harshly. Sometimes, the wonder of life is revealed to us and we are able to discern the deep truths that seem to make the world more wonderful. Sometimes, we suffer the difficulties and pain of life, and even in this, there is the potential for goodness to be born. We can develop compassion for ourselves and witness it in others. We can learn of our own resilience, our boundaries, our strength and our humanness. We can learn to both give and ask for help when it is needed. We can learn to reach out to the person lying on the side of the road, beaten and left for dead. And we can reach out to the parts of ourselves that are bruised and in pain. And as we learn, as we notice what is true, as we attend to our real lives, there is the potential for something wonderful to happen.

When Dostoevsky wrote the Brothers Karamazov, he wrestled with exactly this complexity of life. He wrote of terrible things: patricide, ignorance, and pain. But on a deeper level, the story wrestles with faith and doubt, the troubling and the wonderful. What answer did he come to?

He wrote:

Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.

May it be so with us. May we learn to be mindful, to be compassionate, to love the whole wonderful world.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

CLOSING WORDS
By Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley

This is the work of the soul. Soul work is hard work, but it must be done if we are to be fully alive. One thing that makes it difficult is that it is transcendent-we must move beyond ourselves, to the place of empathy and compassion; to the place of hospitality-hospitality of the human spirit. This is what counters alienation, nihilism, and brokenness in the human family. Soul work. Compassion. Hospitality. It is the work of the church. It is our salvation. It is what ministry is-to save souls through hospitality of the human spirit. So may it be.

SERMON: Coming Home

Today was my first day back in the pulpit since sabbatical. We had great worship and there is a lot of energy buzzing around the church. The congregation gave me a new stole, which was a real surprise. (I forgot to take pictures, but as soon as I get some pictures others took of the day, I’ll put them here.)

We went from the service to coffee hour (with cake to celebrate) and then to our annual picnic. It was great fun. One of the surprising things for me was that so many of the kids made a point to come up and hug me. I must have gotten twenty hugs from kids from two to teens. And many more from the grown ups. It was a delight!

Here are the major parts of the service, including the sermon I gave:

MEDITATION
Will you join me in some quiet moments of meditation and prayer?

Spirit of Life and Love,
There is so much for which to be grateful:
For being together again,
For this beautiful day,
For this community that holds us, nurtures us, challenges us.

Here we are on the bright cusp of summer,
Ready to recommit ourselves to the shared ministry
That is the heart of this congregation.
Ministry that holds us through times of struggle, times of grief, times of illness and trial.
And ministry that can hold our joys as well: the joy of learning, of celebrations, of growth, of hard work and accomplishment.
We are grateful for all that is our life.
I remember this morning the words read each week as we lit the chalice in chapel service at Starr King:

With the kindling of this flame, we reaffirm our commitment to accept Life’s gifts with grace and gratitude and to use them to bless the world in the spirit of Love.

May that flame kindle in us:
The flame of love,
The flame of grace,
The flame of service,
The flame of commitment.

May we be blessed, but more importantly, may we bless the world. And may all that we do be done in the spirit of Love.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

READING
adapted from Growing a Beloved Community
by Tom Owen-Towle

Ours is a faith “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Our progressive faith will always require the collaborative gifts of both pulpit and pew. We share ministry at every level of church existence.

In this play called “life,” we can think of the congregants as the actors, God as the audience, and ministers as prompters who supply forgotten lines, recalling the lines that call us to our highest and holiest selves, the lines that fill us with enormous promise to make Creation more beautiful and just and loving.

Our congregation is a mighty group, full of power and purpose.

We are also a fragile enterprise, full of lethargy and nastiness.

We are both! We are a healthily imperfect group!

Through it all – clashes, celebrations, and heartaches – we pledge to remain companions on the spiritual path. Companions who willingly sit down together and talk and share bread.

As a robust church, we are a companionable family of all ages and backgrounds, orientations and classes – seeking truth, seeking to serve, seeking to be carriers of holiness.

Together, we create a shared ministry through which we can grow our souls in ways truthful to ourselves, caring of others, and sustaining of the planet.

Together, we create democracy in its religious form – NOT where I am as good as you are, but where you are as good as I am, with emphasis on equality rather than ego, with each of us listening to and learning from other stakeholders in our church community, where each person’s ideas and gifts are valued.

Our Unitarian Universalist Principles commit us to the rights of conscience. We each hold the final responsibility for how we act, given what we know and who we are.

Our faith tradition boldly challenges society to choose democracy in matters religious, and we choose this course where power is shared equally and everyone is answerable.

Ours is a faith “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

SERMON
We say it all the time. “You had to be there.” When a story falls flat, or is too specific, or a joke misfires. “You had to be there.” I have to admit that the thought of trying to convey four months of sabbatical in less than twenty minutes makes me just want to say, “You had to be there.” But that would be the easy way out and ironically, one of the lessons of my sabbatical was that life in religious community is not for the faint of heart. It’s not easy and furthermore, it should not be easy. If it were easy, our religious communities would not help us grow, and we wouldn’t help them grow either.

Many of you know that I spent my sabbatical in Berkeley, California at Starr King School for the Ministry, the seminary from which I received my degree seven years ago. I was privileged to be the Minister-in-Residence for their spring semester. That means I was fully involved in the life of the school—teaching, leading chapel services, attending faculty meetings, and maybe most importantly, “hanging out” in the student lounge, interacting with staff, students, and faculty as they dealt with the day-to-day business and pleasure of “formation.”

“Formation” is a word that wasn’t used as often when I was a student, but has come to be a central concept in theological education. It’s the word used to describe what seminary does. It’s more than book learning, more than personal growth, more than learning new skill sets. It’s the process of becoming—in this case, becoming a minister—that can’t be easily summed up in other ways.

One of the things I learned (or remembered) on sabbatical is that we are all in formation. Whether we are being formed into ministers, or teachers , or parents, or survivors, or lay leaders, or fourth graders, or grandparents, or Unitarian Universalists…we are all in the process of becoming. And that means we’re all a little sensitive, a little unsure of ourselves, a little vulnerable. One of the wonderful things about Unitarian Universalism is that it tends to draw people who love to learn and are committed to bettering themselves every day. Most UUs know that it takes a lifetime to “become who we hope to be” and so we remain, as the reading by the Sabbatical Task Force reminded us, “a healthily imperfect group!” And that, my friends, is wonderful.

My time at Starr King reignited my passion for teaching and learning. In case any of us forget—I LOVE teaching. I spent sixteen weeks with ten amazing students, looking deeply at the history and theology of anti-racism and anti-oppression efforts in the Unitarian Universalist movement. It wasn’t always pretty. We have faltered and failed many times in our efforts to live out our commitments to equity, justice, compassion, and welcome. But there was also so much beauty! The beauty of people wrestling with the limitations of habitual thinking. The beauty of people setting aside ideas and behaviors that hindered justice. The beauty of witnessing people make mistakes, forgive themselves and each other, and move on together without fear or shame. And the beauty of new ideas and practices emerging , being tried, refined, and renewed in a spirit of loving acceptance and joy.

More than once I thought, “This is just like the best of our congregations.” And more than once I thought, “I want more of this! I want to take this home to South Valley and watch what happens. I want to know what my people would think.” And I do. I want to know what you think and I want to find ways to give more people more opportunities to think together, to wrestle with ideas and complexities, and to challenge all of us to rely less on the over-abundance of “information” and actually be in formation. I imagine South Valley as a teaching and learning community where every person—from the youngest baby in our nursery to the oldest and wisest among us—is learning. Consciously, intentionally learning together and choosing to become the people and the community we want to be.

In the reading earlier, we spoke of shared ministry. Any of you who have been around for a while have heard that term many times. And so often, it seems like just another way to get people to do their part. We remind you that this congregation is committed to “shared ministry” so would you please join a committee or give an extra few dollars or come to the church clean-up. But listen to what was read again, “Together, we create a shared ministry through which we can grow our souls in ways truthful to ourselves, caring of others, and sustaining of the planet.”

I was reminded on sabbatical that the profound and joyful purpose of our congregation is to grow our souls, and to do it side by side, in community. As I spent time with students who are becoming ministers, I realized that what they are doing and what we are doing is much the same. If we truly believe in shared ministry, then we are all learning to become ministers. We are all in formation. We are all becoming the people we hope to be—the ones who will make a real difference in the world.

Now some of you may be getting a little restless. I can almost hear the thoughts of somebody—over there? In the back?—thinking, “Wait a minute. I did not sign up for this. I am not and don’t want to be a minister. That’s your job, Sean!”

And in one way, you’re right. I am the lucky one who gets to focus on this congregation and this work every day. I am the one who will read reports and go to meetings and write articles and talk to people every day about all of this. But the word “minister” doesn’t only denote my particular role. The word “minister” means “to serve.” And as we sang earlier, “For all life is a gift that we are called to use to serve the common good, and make our own days glad.”

Shared ministry is not about trying to get you to do my job. Shared ministry is working together for the common good. It is being of service—being of use—to our family, to each other, to this neighborhood, this nation, our world.

I’ve told you several times that when challenged to explain Unitarian Universalism in just a few words, I say that deeply rooted in our history is a belief in three things: “You are good. You are loved. And you can make a difference.” What I haven’t told you is that people always react the same way when they hear me say that. When I say, “You are good,” they get a pleasant, but slightly skeptical expression on their face. When I say, “You are loved,” they look hopeful and pained at the same time. And when I say, “You can make a difference,” they light up. I think one of the defining characteristics of healthy humanity is that we want to make a difference. Being good and loved is not enough. We also want to be of use. We want to serve; we want to change the world (even just a little bit) for the better; we want to be of use.

I think we know, down deep, that this is the way our souls grow. We grow when we take what we have learned, what we have been given, what we have discovered or nurtured or made by our own sacred effort, and we offer it to others. We want—or need—or long to be of use, of value. We want to know we’ve done something more than simply meet our own needs. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not simply a reminder to be fair. It’s a reminder to do something—to act, to put into motion real and tangible acts of care and kindness. It’s not enough to be good, we must do good. It’s not enough to be loved, we must be love in this world.

And so I come home to South Valley ready for us to continue learning together how to be of use, how to serve each other’s needs and the needs of our communities, how to truly share the ministry we all need to be part of.

As we embark on the next adventures in our ministry together, I am grateful to be home with all of you, serving the common good, and choosing to bless the world.

May it be so. Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

CLOSING WORDS
by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker

In the midst of a world
marked by tragedy and beauty
there must be those
who bear witness
against unnecessary destruction
and who, with faith,
stand and lead
in freedom,
with grace and power.
There must be those who
speak honestly
and do not avoid seeing
what must be seen
of sorrow and outrage,
or tenderness,
and wonder.
There must be those whose
grief troubles the water
while their voices sing
and speak
refreshed worlds.
There must be those
whose exuberance
rises with lovely energy
that articulates
earth’s joys.
There must be those who
are restless for
respectful and loving
companionship among human beings,
whose presence invites people
to be themselves without fear.
There must be those
who gather with the congregation
of remembrance and compassion
draw water from
old wells,
and walk the simple path
of love for neighbor.
And,
There must be communities of people
who seek to do justice
love kindness and walk humbly with God,
who call on the strength of
soul-force
to heal,
transform,
and bless life.
There must be
religious witness.

Let us minister,
Let us serve.
Let us be of use.
Let us make a difference.
Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.